In a complete departure from political correctness, I'm going to bypass the more obvious things – the people who fought for the end of slavery, civil rights and the fight for equality and dignity – and instead look at one of the aspects of African American history that I have always found fascinating, sexy and cool – Blaxploitation.
Blaxploitation was a genre of movies and music that originated in the seventies, designed specifically to appeal to an urban black audience. Many people these days look back at them with a mixture of embarrassment and disdain – I personally think they're awesome.
What was great about the blaxploitation movies from a masculine perspective was that they were empowering. Up until then, black characters were either butlers or bellboys (in traditional mainstream cinema) or intense and earnest caricatures intended to push a socially responsible message about equality and race relations.
Blaxploitation gave the middle finger to all that and said: Here are some cool action movies, in which all the characters and actors are black.
And for black guys, I can understand the appeal. No black actor had been the heroic lead before, and now here was a genre of films presenting African American men as tough, abundant, capable and sexy. It gave African American men role models to aspire to in the same way white guys looked up to James Bond and other action heroes.
As a white kid, the appeal of blaxploitation movies to me was that they did all of the above, but added another layer to the action genre. Blaxploitation films were funky and sexy in a way white mainstream cinema still isn't.
The big, badass black heroes drove gleaming Lincolns and Cadillacs, and bedded beautiful brown-skinned babes with curves no Caucasian chick could challenge. It was unashamedly materialistic and conspicuous – in a way that both earned the 'exploitation' part of the genre's name, but again was empowering for aspirational African American men during a socioeconomic period in which they were definitely under the white man's thumb.
"These guys," the movies announced, "are affluent, powerful and sexy. There's no reason you can't be as well."
You can argue that this wasn't a good social message to give. You can argue that it was shallow and ignorant and highlighted the other flaws in the blaxploitation genre – like the generally poor treatment of women and the glorification of violence. I'm not arguing that the blaxploitation genre was some great liberating social force or a step towards true economic equality for people of color…
I'm just saying it wasn't half cool.
And in all honesty, most of the condemnation pointed in the direction of the Blaxploitation genre comes from outraged white people anyway. Just take one of my favorite James Bond movies, for example. Live and Let Die, starring Roger Moore, was an iconic blend of superspy and blaxploitation; with a villainous black bad guy and a cohort of black henchmen from Harlem to the Bayou.
One of the best Bond films ever made - Live and Let Die
Some argue that it was 'racist' because the bad guys were black. I argue the opposite – that was was atypically non-racist because it treated black characters as more than just the color of their skin. What's more, the bad guy in Live and Let Die was one of the most menacing and capable in the Bond franchise's history – no camp and clueless Blofeld or Goldfinger here. Similarly, his henchmen were tough badasses who bucked the trend of the anonymous, faceless 'goon' getting turned into cannon fodder during the action sequences.
From a socioeconomic standpoint, it was the movie that helped launch the career of the only black stuntman at the time, Eddie Smith, who went on the form the Black Stuntmen's Association – plus the career of character actor Yaphet Kotto.
"In the history of Negro emancipation there have appeared great athletes, great musicians, great writers, great doctors and scientists. In due course, as in the developing history of other races, there will appear Negroes great and famous in every other walk of life. It is unfortunate for you, Mister Bond, and for this girl, that you have encountered the first of the great Negro criminals." Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die
Sometimes, the most mainstream and populist things are the most powerful and trendsetting. The blaxploitation genre might not have been a great catalyst for civil rights or racial equality – but it did teach a generation of young black men that there were more opportunities available to them in the white man's world than serving drinks and carting luggage.
And I'll have to admit that from my big-collared suits to my eighteen-foot long Lincoln Continental, I've tried to insert a little funk and soul into my modern-day American lifestyle, even if I am about as white as it's possible to get without being translucent. Perhaps the best thing about blaxploitation cinema was that you didn't need to be black to appreciate it.